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Gary Younge
A scandal, but not a story

The main headline in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph on Friday was "Treated like a dog", accompanied by pictures of US servicewoman Lynndie England dragging an Iraqi prisoner on a lead.

On the same day, the main headline in al-Hayat, one of the two leading pan-Arab newspapers, talked instead about battles in Najaf and Karbala. The dog-lead picture got just four-and-a bit columns - less space than in either the Mail or the Telegraph.

Meanwhile, the front page of Asharq al-Awsat, the other leading Arabic daily, showed an Iraqi boy sitting anxiously on a hospital bed, next to his grandfather who had been injured in an explosion. They decided not to put the dog-lead picture on the front because it had been published in the Washington Post the day before, managing editor Ali Ibrahim said.

Both papers place themselves at the serious end of the Arab market, and faced with one of the most sensational stories to hit the Middle East, have kept their cool. "Some Arab papers put big headlines like 'Scandal', but that's not our way," Ibrahim said. "You can't avoid the story. It happened, so we reported it. But we didn't inflame it."

Arab coverage has ranged from "disciplined anger" in the more important papers to outright sensationalism in others, according to one regular reader of the Arab press. Some of the Gulf newspapers avoided mentioning the torture story for several days - a common occurrence when they are unsure of how to handle a sensitive issue.

Part of the reluctance to over-play the story, according to one professional monitor of the Arab media who asked not to be identified, is that the events in Abu Ghraib have not only damaged the US but have hit moderates in the Arab world, too.

"If it was just torture people would understand, but it's the perversions in the pictures that appear to confirm what some people, such as Bin Laden, say about the immorality of the west," she said.

This aspect was treated with relish in the Egyptian opposition paper, al-Wafd, which published photographs - including rape scenes that were probably fakes grabbed from the internet - with no indication of their provenance.

"Some of their pictures were just cheap pornography," said Hisham Kassem, publisher of the weekly Cairo Times.

Much of the coverage has been "nationalist, inflammatory, misinforming and shameless", according to Kassem. "They talk about American monstrosities as if their own governments have never practised anything similar. It's nothing in comparison to what's happening in Arab prisons."

Meanwhile, the emergence of photographic evidence of torture of Iraqi prisoners caused hand-wringing in the American media. CBS did not actually broadcast the international scoop for two weeks, following a personal request by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and only ran it once they knew the New Yorker magazine was going to.

"It's hard to just make those kinds of decisions," said Jeff Fager, executive producer of 60 Minutes. "It's not natural for us; the natural thing is to put it on the air. But the circumstances were quite unusual."

Meanwhile some newspapers, including USA Today, one of only three national newspapers, and Murdoch's New York Post, refused to print them. "If there's a handful of US soldiers who've mistreated prisoners, I don't think that should be allowed to reflect poorly on the 140,000 men and women over there who are risking their lives and doing a good job," said Col Allan, the New York Post's editor-in-chief.

Those who did publish were extremely cautious. The New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, Newsday, the Washington Post and the New York Daily News all showed at least one picture at the very beginning of the scandal. The Washington Post was the boldest, publishing a picture of a hooded Iraqi prisoner on a box with wires on its front page and shots of soldiers standing over a pile of naked prisoners inside. The next day, the front page showed a shot of a soldier looking at a mound of clothed prisoners.

On Thursday, it had an international scoop with its exclusive pictures of Lynndie England and ran a number of photos, including the dog-lead image.

The New York Times ran fewer pictures and kept them off the front page. Bill Keller, executive editor, said the newspaper had initially held off, only because it "could not, in the time available, ascertain their authenticity."

Unlike its fellow New York tabloid , the Daily News did publish a torture image: the photo of the hooded man with his hands attached to electrical wires. "If we want to be more than mere propaganda sheets," said the newspaper's editorial director, Martin Dunn, "then surely there is a duty to show them." It was on page 22.

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